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While the British Columbia government’s official figures show assisted deaths are on the rise, an anti-euthanasia advocate is concerned with the quality of the data the province is providing.

British Columbia released its annual report on medical assistance in dying last week, revealing a 10% rise in the number of euthanasia deaths. In 2023, there were 2,767 euthanasia deaths reported compared with the previous year’s 2,515.

Alex Schadenberg, the executive director for the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, raised the alarm on what he calls an “intentionally mysterious” report, which “does very little” to clarify many of the questions surrounding the province’s euthanasia program.

“What was shocking to me about the data was that 32.9% of deaths were from other conditions,” he told True North in an interview.

The report conveys the underlying medical conditions of those who died in the euthanasia program. The majority of deaths (57.2%) were among British Columbians with cancer. 20% had cardio-vascular conditions, 14.6% had neurological conditions, 7.4% reported having organ failure, and 12.7% had respiratory illnesses.

The report said these conditions were indicated on the prescribing practitioner’s assessment as reasons for accessing euthanasia.

Some patients have multiple conditions listed.

Schadenberg noted that these figures are out of alignment with the stats in other jurisdictions. 

“When you look at euthanasia data from countries like Netherlands, Belgium or assisted suicide in the U.S., you notice that cancer usually represents about two-thirds of all the deaths. And here, one-third of the deaths are ‘other conditions,’” Schadenberg said.

The report details the conditions of those 910 individuals who said they had other conditions or comorbidities. 24.8% reported chronic pain, and 9.8% said diabetes was a comorbidity.

Schadenberg is concerned this might mean euthanasia is being used for non-terminal illnesses. He pointed out that these “other conditions,” even when listed as comorbidity, are not terminal.

“(230 deaths, or 8.3%) of all deaths are chronic pain. These are people who may need proper pain control and might need many things,” Schadenberg said. “But diabetes? Diabetes is not in any way a terminal condition and, as a chronic condition, is certainly treatable.”

“Frailty” was considered the most common “comorbidity or other condition.” 60.5% of the 910 individuals under this section had listed being frail as a reason to access the province’s euthanasia program. 52.1% reported still other comorbidities.

About 550 or 20% of those euthanized had frailty as an “other reason or comorbidity.”

“That’s a huge number,” Schadenberg said.

He said other provinces, such as Quebec and Ontario, have committees that attempt to hold the MAiD programs accountable. Quebec’s committee reported 15 people who were killed in a way that did not fit with the requirements of the law.

“British Columbia doesn’t have a committee, so all it gives us is the numbers,” he said.“It’s very hard to know what they’ve done here. And that’s what concerns me.”

B.C.’s Ministry of Health did not respond to True North’s requests to define its use of the word “frailty” or to offer further details about what was included in the unclassified other comorbidities.

“Does this mean that someone 92 years old but otherwise healthy, but because they are 92, they now qualify under this term frailty?” Schadenberg said.

The report does, however, say that mental disorders were combined into the other comorbidities section due to “low numbers.”

The report also noted that nearly 22% of “MAiD provision locations” were in hospices or palliative care facilities. Though Schadenberg is opposed to euthanasia in all its forms, he found its use in these settings particularly offensive. 

“Hospice is about pain and symptom management. When killing becomes part of hospice, it totally changes the orientation of what it’s about,” he said. “The idea of how we care for someone totally changes when killing becomes an option.

Schadenberg thinks these reports are intentionally “mysterious.”

“There’s no actual analysis, just the numbers,” he said.